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Government Archives

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government what is their latest assessment of the arrangements for preserving Government archives and preparing official histories.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am raising two separate but related matters: how government papers, including ministerial papers, are kept after leaving their working departmental offices and the record of major events described in Crown copyright official histories. The responsibility lies with the Cabinet Office and then, I suppose, with the Prime Minister, which is appropriate, as Gordon Brown identifies himself as a historian.

In passing, I pay tribute to Tessa Stirling, the head of the Histories, Openness and Records Unit at the Cabinet Office, who was awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours. She has been well known to many professional historians for her long, devoted service, and she was very patient when I, not being a professional historian, asked some pressing questions.

This is an opportunity for me to welcome the new history and policy project launched in December. Inspired by Cambridge University and others, endorsed by the All-Party History Group and blessed by Prospect magazine, it is designed to improve public policy through the better understanding of history. I hope that it will be successful.

My first concern this evening is about government papers—lesser papers than Cabinet papers—which are stored until they are disposed of. My interest arose when I was seeking papers on two issues that were important when I was Secretary of State for Transport in 1976. Early in 2005, I asked the Department for Transport for papers arising from two ministerial areas: the public inquiry into the controversial widening of the Archway Road, the A1, and critical decisions made by the Government on whether to support the proposed Tyne and Wear metro railway. Despite toing and froing between me and the department for over six months, I finally abandoned any hope of finding anything except a single, incomplete file.

The departmental records officer went to a great deal of trouble, but I was unhappy about the condition of the papers kept in a repository at Hastings. It was possible, I discovered, that my papers might or might not have been retained. The contents of the files, although kept, might or might not have been accurately and comprehensively identified, and the titles might or might not have been changed. I am certainly not an archivist, but there is no point in keeping archives unless they are professionally catalogued and carefully managed. On the face of it, the papers of the Department for Transport were in a mess.

Eventually, on 24 January 2006, I wrote to the Secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Gus O’Donnell. I said that I no longer wished to pursue the two matters that I had raised with the Department for Transport; my concern now was the broad question of Whitehall papers once they had left the working offices and before the National Archives had decided what to retain. I shall not bother the House with all the details, but the Cabinet Secretary said that departmental record-keeping was of a much higher standard than it used to be, that there had been several inquiries and that an interdepartmental group had looked at the problems of storing and archiving of private office records. As a result, in 2001, the previous Cabinet Secretary had given guidance to the Permanent Secretaries, and that was revised in 2004.

That is where the matter rested, as Sir Gus said that the guidance would be looked at again during 2006-07, when the Cabinet Office would monitor how the departments had acted on their recent guidance. I am asking the Minister for a report of the outcome and what has been achieved. In particular, is every Permanent Secretary at least maintaining a good records system, or, if not, is there any sanction to ensure that the job is properly done? Could experts from the marvellous National Archives at Kew be asked to set up a model records system for every department?

I turn to my second separate but related issue: official histories. Here, I declare an interest, wholly unremunerated, as a member of a group of three privy counsellors together with the noble Lord, Lord Healey, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, appointed by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to approve the authors of official histories. Outside that responsibility or role, however, I have become interested in the planning and overall management of official histories.

The first official history that I remember was Problems of Social Policy by RM Titmuss, published in 1950. Apart from being an account of wartime experience, it was a seminal text on poverty and deprivation and how to try to deal with it. Many years later, I was required to take a ministerial interest in a very different kind of official history, The SOE in France by MRD Foot. There is a huge series of military histories of the Second World War and, since 1966, a series that is described as “History of peacetime events”. I am much impressed by the number of volumes and the quality of those that I have read. I have read two recent volumes on the Falklands War and dipped into two volumes of separate series on early aspects of Britain’s membership of the European Union. There has been a history of Britain and the Channel Tunnel, and a biography, Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence, which I have much enjoyed.

That book, Churchill’s Man of Mystery, has focused my mind on some wider policy questions about the official history programme: the timetable and shape of the programme, the publisher, the contracts with authors, and the marketing of the books. I am strongly in favour of the endeavour, but is it being done in the best way? Churchill's Man of Mystery seems to be a one-off: admirable, but not in a biographical series. It has a well designed jacket and tells a fascinating story. However, when I wanted to buy a copy, I found that it was not in my local book shop. When I eventually found it, the cost was £49, which is a ridiculous price and out of the range of many book buyers. It should have sold 5,000 to 6,000 copies or more at £25 to £30 and perhaps been serialised in a newspaper and considered for a television programme. Who made these decisions? How many copies have been sold? Were there book reviews in the major newspapers and magazines, as there should have been?

There is a useful, explanatory Cabinet Office leaflet about the official history programme, but I am little uneasy about the detailed arrangements. This is not a debate that lends itself to all the questions, but, to use a fashionable phrase, I ask whether it is not time for an audit. I do not mean an audit by the tireless Audit Commission, but a fresh look at these matters by a distinguished historian, perhaps accompanied by a major commercial publisher. For a historian, I think of Sir Michael Howard, emeritus professor of modern history at Oxford, Sir Keith Thomas, former president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford, or, of a younger generation, Professor David Cannadine, who is already working on the 30-year rule review. As for a publisher, there is the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, who was formerly chairman of Faber & Faber for many years.

This is a moment when almost every former Cabinet Minister is expected to write a personal memoir or publish a political diary; and many special advisers and spin doctors also are on the publishing bandwagon. For this reason, it is important to safeguard the basic government material of the past and, in due course, to publish independent accounts of aspects and events of the past. I do not ask the Minister to comment in detail on both the matters that I have raised, but I hope that the Cabinet Office will carefully consider all my points.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for giving the House the chance to discuss these important matters. I identify myself with his remarks about the history and policy project, which has already proved to be fruitful and interesting.

The noble Lord offered two major themes for our consideration. The first relates to our current arrangements for the preservation of government archives. I think that many Members of your Lordships’ House will have been worried by the case from the noble Lord’s own ministerial days that he laid out before us. Matters may have improved in recent years, as he has been reassured. The Freedom of Information Act may have had the knock-on effect of encouraging better record management. The Lord Chancellor’s code of practice under Section 46 is said to have led to an improved level of government record retention, although the noble Lord’s example this evening did not encourage me too much in that respect.

The Freedom of Information Act has undoubtedly had another impact: it has inevitably increased the pressure on our hard-pressed archivists. I am conscious particularly of the situation in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland as Northern Ireland emerges from the Troubles. Under the Freedom of Information Act, it has become possible to make inquiries about difficult and contentious cases, which creates a labour for our archivists. They have done everything possible to maximise the release of material while using the device of redaction to preserve the health and safety of living persons. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland does a remarkable job in preserving the collective memory of the Province, which is an essential part of the long-term healing process.

At the heart of the debate is resource allocation. We must anticipate a lack of the sort of funding that would allow the absolutely satisfactory handling of government archives. At the moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said, the Government have a committee reviewing the working of the 30-year rule. It includes Paul Dacre, the editor of a very successful newspaper, and Professor David Cannadine, who is a very distinguished historian, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said. Given the special difficulties that relate to Northern Ireland, I am glad to say that it includes also Sir Joseph Pilling, a former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office. I should perhaps declare an interest to the extent that I served with Professor Cannadine on the committee of the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

We live in an era of ever-increasing public demand for disclosure. These trends are irreversible. Recent court cases involving leaked documents are highly instructive in this respect. Even putting aside the issue of leaks, I say that we now put officially into the public domain material that a previous generation would have regarded as quite unthinkable. When I started graduate research in history at the University of Cambridge, it was impossible to obtain sensitive documents that related to security matters in Ireland in the 1870s and 1880s. At the time of the Bloody Sunday tribunal, we put into the public domain the most sensitive material relating to an incident in 1972—not 1872. That shows the extent to which we have changed in our attitudes. The committee that I mentioned will have to decide whether adequate funding is in place to ensure that any change of the 30-year rule to 25 or 20 years is not counterproductive, perhaps even leading to the loss of important documentation. There is no doubt that the change from the 50- to the 30-year rule in 1977 led to a degree of administrative chaos, and it is important that that should not be repeated.

Professor Rodney Lowe of Bristol University, who is a great expert in this field, has argued that the early release of documents would allow officials to speak more easily truth unto power and thereby contribute to better government. That may be true, but it will also certainly and inevitably lead to greater embarrassment. Even under the existing 30-year arrangement, we have had some very near misses. If we move to 25 or 20 years, it is certain that embarrassments will take place. Perhaps I may explain what I mean. At the turn of this year, British Foreign Office papers from 1977 were released in the normal way under the 30-year rule. They contained considerable salty, unflattering comment on the Irish political class. When the documents were released, they caused considerable irritation in the Dublin newspapers, and considerable aggrieved comment was made. Let us imagine what would happen if the young Foreign Office official who wrote those documents was at that time the British ambassador in Dublin. Such considerations have to be borne in mind.

These embarrassments aside, the pressure over time to move a 20- or a 25-year rule—it may not come from the committee, but it will happen over time—is likely to be irreversible and irresistible. There are good reasons for it, of which I shall give the House an example. In 2001, in the United States, the biography of Congressman Tip O’Neill was published by JA Farrell, the Washington correspondent of the Boston Globe. This is significant for our history, because it deals with the important matter of the decision of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, on the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. Mr Farrell was able to access National Security Council archives, which showed the full Reagan/American side. Everyone accepts that that aspect was an important part of the noble Baroness’s decision. We, however, will have to wait until 2016 before we know the other side. Such imbalances and ambiguities are in the end intolerable and will increase the pressure for a change to a 20-year or 25-year rule. Whether this committee acts is another matter, but, in time, the pressure will be hard to resist.

However, one major and less controversial reform is open to the new committee. In 1958 the Public Record Office made an important and wise decision that the papers of Ministers’ private offices were public records. It is almost amazing that until that time they were not. The new review has the option, as Professor Lowe has pointed out, of establishing as public records such papers as those of special advisers—increasingly important in recent years—the Whips office, hived-off agencies, and private agencies financed by taxpayers’ money for delivering policy.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has also directed our attention to the subject of our official histories. The first UK official history programme was established in 1908, exactly 100 years ago as a reaction to the perceived failings of the Boer War. Military history has played a large part in the enterprise, as the noble Lord said, although he mentioned also the important work of Richard Titmuss at the LSE. We have recently been reminded that Professor Arthur Marder had an enormous struggle to secure the release of official documents for his acclaimed multi-volume history of the Royal Navy in the First World War, published between 1960 and 1974.

Today, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. The vetting of material is much less strict, and we are entirely justified in looking forward with some enthusiasm to the works recently commissioned by the Cabinet Office. I am particularly looking forward to the history of an important part of our intelligence services being carried out by a colleague in my own university, Professor Keith Jeffery. If, as seems likely and desirable, we are to see an extension of the Cabinet Office’s official history programme, we need, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has urged, simultaneously a greater concern with the practicalities of publication. The taxpayer and the reading public deserve no less.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bew, my first duty is to thank my noble friend Lord Rodgers for initiating this debate. In the day-to-day hurly-burly of politics, how we preserve government archives and how we prepare official histories may not be the top of the agenda. But history does matter and my noble friend does us all a service by providing an opportunity for us to debate this topic tonight. As he told us, he has direct experience of the Official History Programme, serving as he does on the committee of distinguished privy counsellors who have oversight of the programme. Healey, Howe, Rodgers—quite a formidable trio. I would like to be a fly on the wall at some of their meetings.

I have had a lifelong love of history. I had the privilege of studying English social history at University College London under Professor Joel Hurstfield. I am still a subscriber to History Today and a devotee of the History Channel and the programmes of Professors Schama and Starkey on television. I am always suspicious of politicians who show no knowledge of or interest in history. As Winston Churchill once observed:

“It is an error to believe that the world began when any particular party or statesman got into office. It has all been going on for quite a long time”.

And so it has. But we are in danger, if we are not careful, of neglecting the raw material of history. If we do, we will rely too much on diaries and instant memoirs, as has already been mentioned.

I have to declare that I have never kept a diary and that I have no intention of publishing a memoir. I am not a great fan of diaries as an historical source. It is like asking a football player to report a football match he is playing in. I know from my limited experience of writing a diary for The House Magazine that you become a kind of servant to the diary. The need to seem central and relevant to events makes the diarist an uncertain witness. On the other side of the fence, the idea that one or more colleagues may be scurrying home after a meeting to record their version of events cannot lend itself to free and frank discussion or great mutual confidence. As has been mentioned, we now also have the reductio ad absurdum of the process with the publication of Mr Alastair Campbell’s diaries, which, as we know, are the expurgated version because the details of the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown are too lurid for contemporary eyes.

Of course official histories have their drawbacks, too. They always live in the shadow of being compared with Winston Smith plying his trade doctoring history in the Ministry of Truth. Even if we do not view them as part of a 1984 nightmare, we have to take on board the views of Barry Coward, president of the Historical Association, who said:

“Official histories are a bad thing because they can be used for establishing government purposes and can be re-invented to support the official Establishment”.

He goes on to warn:

“History should not be used as a tool of Government”.

Such a warning should be taken on board. We do not want establishment history written by establishment historians. However, the official programme has set in train a programme of scholarship. It will not be the last word, but it will be invaluable to future historians. Jonathan Pepler, chair of the National Council on Archives, said:

“NCA would … want to put on record its appreciation of the quality of recent official histories. One of the best examples of these being last year’s, “The official history of Britain and the Channel Tunnel”, by Dr Terry Gourvish”.

In reality, what we are discussing tonight is another aspect of open government. It goes hand in hand with an effective Freedom of Information Act and the ending of the culture of secrecy in Whitehall. That is why it is important that policy on freedom of information and on archives and records should be a seamless garment. I have visited the National Archives at Kew and was very impressed with what I saw. But I am only an interested amateur. So let me put on record the view of Professor Peter Hennessy of Queen Mary College, London, who believes that it is the best national archive in the world. So the question is: how do we preserve this great national treasure? And I am referring not to Professor Hennessy but to the National Archives.

First, I believe that the programme of official histories should be encouraged and maintained. And perhaps I may make a suggestion, as it has been mentioned already. I should like to see a study of the history and role of special and political advisers in Whitehall. I was once told that such implants go back at least as far as Lloyd George’s time. A proper study would expose many of the myths and shibboleths about their role in governance.

Secondly, there is a need to ensure that the work and efficiency of the National Archives at Kew are not weakened or undermined by the extra calls made by implementing the Freedom of Information Act. Can the Minister assure the House that there is no “robbing Peter to pay Paul” switch of resources and that Kew will not suffer such cuts to service freedom of information demands?

Thirdly, we all look forward to the review of the 30-year rule under the chairmanship of Paul Dacre. I must confess that when I first heard that Mr Dacre had been asked to undertake this study, I thought it was like asking Jack the Ripper to undertake a review of street lighting. Nevertheless we look forward to the review, and I note what the Prime Minister said when announcing it. He stated:

“It is an irony that the information that can be made available on requests on current events and current decisions is still withheld as a matter of course for similar events and similar decisions that happened 20 or 25 years ago”.

There was a good example of that last weekend when it was reported that an apparent tiff between Sir Anthony Eden and Churchill about the timing of Churchill’s retirement had been kept secret for 50 years. It seems extraordinary that that should be so. A number of the embargos on the workings of government, the security services and royalty belong to a different age.

Publication can create the danger of embarrassment, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said. The 30-year rule recently coughed up a memo that I sent to Jim Callaghan in 1977 advising him strongly not to see the troublesome Back-Bench Member for Hull, Mr John Prescott. By the time this all surfaced, Mr Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister. But I am absolutely sure that it did not change his view of me one jot to know that 30 years ago I had been doing that.

We are all living longer, the Freedom of Information Act is becoming a reality of open government, and we will all have to come to terms with accepting the consequences of our actions when in government. However, as the Hutton and Butler reports have shown, sofa government—where major decisions are taken without a paper trail—and the increasing use of new communication technologies mean that the archives may not always tell the whole story. It is 30 years since the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, asked his predecessor, Harold Wilson, for a review of record-keeping in Whitehall. In terms of how government is carried on and records kept, that was another age. I should therefore like to see, once we have the Dacre report and its recommendations, a more broad-based review to follow up the Wilson committee of 30 years ago. Such a committee could also look at the need for and capability of preserving voice and visual records as well as e-mail traffic.

As I said, history is important. It is important for all our citizens to know who we are and the events that have made us what we are. In my teens I was stimulated by the Granada programme hosted by Brian Inglis called “All Our Yesterdays”. I still think that it is a key part of citizenship that we understand where we are and what our history is. It is key that we encourage both record-keeping and openness of government. My noble friend Lord Rodgers has stimulated a very worthwhile debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that I would love to come to a full hour-long lecture by him on the subject. But I will leave that matter for the moment.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for introducing this short but most useful debate. All of us ought to be interested in our forebears and history. I am therefore most disappointed in the small number of noble Lords present, particularly on my own Bench. As an amateur historian, I have always been fascinated by the parliamentary archive and in the preservation generally of documents, whether ancient or modern. The Parliamentary Archives, together with the National Archives, have custody of over 500 years of records, on parchment, paper, film, tape and photographic reproductions. House of Lords records are held largely in the Victoria Tower. It is some years since I last paid a visit but I was fascinated. I have been promised another visit and shall be doing that.

Most early House of Commons records were destroyed in the devastating fire of 1834. Archives are kept as records of Parliament for various obvious reasons: as a legal and evidential record of Parliament’s proceedings and work since the late 15th century, to help us to learn from history. But do we learn? Archives are kept to help the general public to learn about how their predecessors and ancestors lived and their achievements; to help historians, both professional and amateur, to prepare official histories, biographies and related activities and to carry out research.

Parliamentary Archives is one of several offices that constitute the Clerk of the Parliaments’ department. The House of Lords Information Committee has oversight of the work of the archive. The archive, it goes without saying, provides an updated catalogue of all the other archives, and is still in the process of digitalising them and making sure that they are available online. It helps the public to inspect and copy records and to answer inquiries. It makes sure that the general public are aware of the existence of the archive and how they can use it for research and lifelong learning. It helps to provide that vital link between Parliament and people. It provides data for IT and encourages the use of that IT. It also helps the public and parliamentarians to use that resource. It has to ensure that records that are worthy of preservation—who decides if they are worthy?—are selected for the archive. It obtains and, if necessary, acquires other records deemed to contribute significantly to understanding the history and workings of Parliament.

Some archives have naturally deteriorated over the years and need conservation and then preservation from future damage. Clearly an efficient department carries out this work. I have read the archive’s latest annual report, the publication date of which does not appear to be given. It is an interesting document, though I personally find the style and language in which it is written difficult to follow. It is clearly not written with the general public in mind. Perhaps something derived from such a document should be produced annually so that the general public can be informed about what is happening.

During my researches I discovered that Hansard has been carefully preserved all through the years; that Acts of Parliament from the House of Lords are, by and large, in the Victoria Tower, as are many Acts originating in the House of Commons; that pamphlets and newspaper articles relevant to government and Parliament have been preserved; that the original warrant for the execution—or, as I prefer to call it, murder—of Charles I is kept, with other priceless important documents, in a specially air-conditioned room; and that there is regular and frequent communication between the House of Lords Library, the House of Commons Library and other libraries, the historical record office, the National Archives and many other depositories of historic documents.

I have learnt a lot, and I hope absorbed a great deal, during the preparation for this debate. A great deal of dedicated work is carried out by the department. Here I must thank Dr Hallam Smith for her help and say how much I enjoyed her obvious enthusiasm. Archives are essential parts of our lives, not least because they bring a sense of immediacy to long-forgotten history—lest we forget.

My Lords, the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for introducing such an interesting debate. It deals with an area that I cannot recall being voiced in the House before. This debate is therefore long overdue because we need to address issues relating to both archives and official histories. I hope that I shall be able to indicate that constructive work is being done. However, first, I want to put on record my gratitude for the helpful and interesting suggestions that have been made this evening, as they aid the Government’s thinking in this area.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for his tribute to Tessa Stirling and the work that she has done in this area over many years. The honour that she obtained was well deserved, and there is no doubt that the country owes her a great debt of gratitude for that work.

A great deal of work is under way to ensure that the Government capture and maintain vital information that is generated. We recognise that government information is unique and an extremely valuable asset where robust information management is vital.

It may help if I outline the arrangements that we have in place at the moment and indicate the areas where we need to think constructively about the future. As the official government archive for England, Wales and the United Kingdom, National Archives houses records from across central government that are mostly over 30 years old. There is no legal obligation on departments to transfer records to National Archives if they are under 30 years old. I want to reassure the noble Lord about his search of the Ministry of Transport records some time ago. Lessons have been learnt from that period and the care with which government departments maintain their records is at a higher standard than he may have witnessed when he examined the position some time ago.

The House will be aware—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to this—that the Prime Minister announced on 25 October last year that he had appointed an independent team led by Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers Ltd and a member of the Press Complaints Commission, to review when government records are made available to the public. The review is focusing on whether, in the light of the Freedom of Information Act and other considerations, there should be any changes to the 30-year rule—the time-span under which most public records are transferred to National Archives and made available to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, identified areas where the 30-year rule needs to be looked at afresh. First, if one part of a story is released elsewhere somewhat earlier than the present 30 years, obvious questions are raised about impartial information being in the public domain.

Secondly, with careers lasting longer and people living longer, the 30-year limit raises significant issues about individuals’ sensitivity when information is released for which they are either directly responsible or identified in a particular role. Therefore, these matters need to be looked at afresh and I assure the House that that is what the review is intended to do. Although the noble Lord, Lord McNally, ended by giving an encomium to Paul Dacre, I think he recognises that, with his background in the newspaper industry, he has at least a real concern for the immediacy and relevance of information, and that makes him an excellent appointment to the role.

Within each department, a departmental record officer is responsible for the care of all the records, which in recent years has inevitably included an increasing number of electronic records. Each departmental record officer’s work on public records is carried out under the guidance and supervision of expert staff at National Archives. The National Archives team takes a strategic role and supports the department in its operational work. At a strategic level, National Archives agrees with each department which records need to be kept for long-term preservation and access via a published document—the operational selection policy. At an operational level, it advises and helps the departmental record officers in selecting records for permanent preservation at National Archives in line with this policy, in creating search aids to the records, and in ensuring that the records are prepared and transferred to the correct archival standard. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate the extent to which intensive rigour is applied to the processing of departmental records and the role which National Archives plays in supervising that work.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, indicated, the Freedom of Information Act has made the Government more accountable than ever for the proper management of information. Section 46 of the Act requires the Lord Chancellor to issue a code of practice on the management of records. This was published in November 2002 and came into effect on 1 January 2005. It is in two parts. Part 1 covers record management and part 2 covers the review and transfer of public records. The code applies to all central government departments and public record bodies. That is an important derivative from the Freedom of Information Act which conditions, in a way vastly different from in past decades, the ways in which departments now and in the future will need to address themselves to the question of records. Last year, National Archives launched information management assessments designed to raise the capability and awareness of the Government’s management of their information and records. A department’s compliance with the code is assessed within the overall departmental information management standards. The initial assessments completed last year have resulted in strong recommendations and actions for improving and supporting how departments manage their records and information. They have also enhanced the awareness of the importance of managing information and records across these departments.

National Archives is also supporting the Government to help capture and maintain vital information for the development of guidance on the tools for proper information management. With the increasing number of electronic records, for example, National Archives is taking forward a pan-government shared services project, the digital continuity project, which aims to deliver a shared service across government to ensure the survival and accessibility of digital information. I hope that, in this section, I have been able to demonstrate to the noble Lord, with his well founded anxieties, that the arrangements are in place for capturing and maintaining government archives—and perhaps more importantly, that the initiatives being introduced will ensure that we guarantee the survival of today’s information for tomorrow.

I turn to the noble Lord’s second consideration, the Government’s official history programme. I confess that I have a great deal in common with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I too studied history at University College under Professor Joel Hurstfield. I too played in the parliamentary football team. The only difference between us is that I have continued to vote Labour and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has gone a different route. But, in every other respect, he knows only too well that I understand and follow his great interest in these matters. I am very appreciative of the fact that he has addressed the question of the official histories this evening, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers.

We recognise that the present arrangements with the Whitehall History Publishing group—which have been in place since 1999 and the contract runs till 2010—are with the Routledge arm of Taylor & Francis. In the past it has proved both efficient and cost effective to have all the histories published this way. The contract requires no expenditure by the partners of the Whitehall histories group and they receive a proportion of the royalties from sales to help offset the costs. However, I bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said and I think he was buttressed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally—I am not so sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bew, did not also cast a glance in this direction—that the official histories perhaps need to be marketed more successfully.

I cannot give much help as far as my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting is concerned. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, might have just forgotten that he has moved out of publishing and into banking. We all know what has happened to banking since the noble Lord, Lord Evans, has appeared in that quarter. Suffice it to say, we should certainly look at marketing. There is no doubt that we want the official histories to be written to the very highest standards and they will be inevitably costly. History books are costly, as all Members of the House will know. It is also the case that if we are to see a wider public enjoy a set of books, we must be careful to avoid prohibitive prices. The marketing aspect of the official histories may need to be looked at with some constructive care.

I would like to clarify the difference between the official history programme, which is run from within the Cabinet Office, and the internal histories, which are the work of other departments, notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. The Cabinet Office is responsible for managing all the official histories and the official history programme, but both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as noble Lords will know, publish histories which relate to work of their departments.

I am all too well aware that my responses to this debate are bound to be inadequate against the background of the highly specialised expertise which has been brought to the debate, but I want to answer certain questions before I conclude. I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for introducing into the debate something I had not anticipated, and ought to have done knowing his interest in this area. It was very useful indeed to have a relationship to the archives of Parliament and the work that is done here. They are also quite unique and it is important that they are valued too. He was emphatic about the good work that is being done in this area, but of course no one should rest on their laurels on these issues.

I say in passing that about the only feature of my education in history at University College that paid direct and immediate dividends related to the fact that, when I became secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1979, I discovered that every single record of the history of the PLP, going right through the resignation of Oswald Mosley, the election of Clynes in 1922 and the General Strike, was handwritten on foolscap paper pushed into loose-leaf folders. I managed to get that put into some permanent position on microfiche; the records are now in the Museum of Labour History in Manchester. That just shows that, even with the most redundant of students, Professor Hurstfield could strike a chord at least in one respect to the benefit of historians.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, indicated that he thought that the official histories were at times a somewhat odd mixture. As they were drawn up from suggestions across Whitehall, there will be a certain idiosyncrasy to them. The whole question of which topics should be covered is a thorny one. Suffice it to say that steps are being taken to tap into external advice as well. After all, the histories are written by outside historians—by definition, academic historians—so it is only right that we should take greater steps to take their advice on the compilation of the histories.

I have come to the end of my time before answering every question in the detail that I would have wished. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that I will write to him where I have failed to answer his specific questions. On the more general issues that have been raised this evening, all noble Lords have made it clear that we need to address ourselves with considerable care both to the archives and to the official histories. I assure the House that constructive concepts are in place. There is an openness to learn from others on how we can improve on past performance. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for giving us the opportunity to air these issues this evening.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.33 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.21 to 8.33 pm.]